15 April 2010

A Huston Sampler, Pt 1

Over the last several weeks I have been watching a mix of John Huston films, at first coincidentally and then quite intentionally. I have always been interested in Huston, though up until this series of viewings I had only seen The Maltese Falcon. And while I love that film, my fondness for it is all Bogart and Lorre, not necessarily Huston, who I otherwise remembered as the actor who played Noah Cross. Even so, I've had a vague awareness of Huston's myth as a Hemingwayesque man's man kind of artist -- a cigar-chomping, hard-liquor-guzzling, self-destructive gambler that womanizes and hunts large game and WILL FIGHT YOU BECAUSE HE DOES NOT GIVE A SHIT -- an archetype of the American character that has always been intriguing to me (which Robert Altman seems to fit as well). Knowing this, I was especially interested to see the portrayals of masculinity and the internal conflicts of the protagonists within his films, both of which were nicely introduced by Key Largo, the film that I began with.
Key Largo, adapted by Huston and Richard Brooks, is a Bogart and Bacall vehicle (their last) in which Bogart plays Frank McCloud, a returning vet paying a visit to the family of a deceased war buddy in a Key Largo hotel only to find himself stranded in the middle of a hurricane with a posse of gangsters led by Johnny Rocco, played with gusto by Edward G. Robinson. McCloud is played with Bogart's trademark mix of cynicism and goodness, a man who does the right thing despite himself -- the reluctant hero. Though McCloud is a war hero, distinguishing him as brave, he doesn't want to bother with Rocco or his gang, making him looked down upon by Nora (Bacall), her father, and even the gang. As Rocco's abuse of the hostages gets worse, particularly the way he whispers dirty, inaudible things into the ear of Nora (a fantastic screen gesture I'm surprised not to have seen before), McCloud gets fed up and decides to take the gangsters out, reliving his war experience on a boat shoot-out. Only after he does this does he completely win Nora as a prize for his bravery and display of masculinity.

What makes the film more psychoanalytically interesting is that Nora's father, with whom she lives alone, is in a wheelchair, making him unable to act. Thus, McCloud's virility and violence allow him to take Nora's father's place in Nora's life as the true masculine figure. Ironically, the hyper-masculinity McCloud has to show by the film's end is not too different from the hyper-masculinity displayed by Rocco throughout the entire film, who waves his gun around in an perpetual state of threat. McCloud's smarter than that (at one point he says: "You don't like it, do you Rocco, the storm? Show it your gun, why don't you? If it doesn't stop, shoot it.") but, eventually, using a gun is the only way to get things done.
 Next, I watched The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, made in the same year (1948), which is probably Huston's masterpiece, or at least a masterpiece of American Hollywood filmmaking. Adapted from the novel by B. Traven (which I read and with whom I became very intrigued), the film concerns the attempt of three down-and-out Americans living in Mexico during the 1920s to strike it rich by prospecting for gold. The story exploits the greediness brought out of hungry and desperate people that have a taste for gold. The adaptation is faithful to the feeling of desperation and madness that permeates the original text. Again returning in a lead role, Bogart plays Dobbs, whose shit life leaves him bitter, short-tempered, and ready to burst at a moment's notice. He is paired with Tim Holt as his less-manic partner in poverty and the very excellent Walter Huston as the wise and weary old-timer prospector. It's pretty clear from the beginning of the film that Dobbs is doomed, especially when he overhears Howard (Huston) explaining how gold can change a man's soul, though not for the better. As Dobbs Bogart is fantastic, bringing to surface all of the snarling nastiness his screen persona hints he is capable of and then amplifying it to the point where you nearly detest him.
 This is probably the manliest movie I've seen since Clouzot's Wages of Fear, which paired together would make a great double feature. While the latter focuses on the bond that forms among men being manly in the face of peril, Huston's film investigates the dark, dangerous edges of that masculinity, particularly in the way the need to assert authority can lead to murder. Of course, it is his lust for gold that makes Dobbs the slimy creature he becomes, but it also seems to come from some need to compensate for his deficiencies as a man. In the film, Curtin (Holt) is taller, handsomer and has better eyesight and is thus a better shot. Curtin also saves Dobbs's life at one point, reminding him that he is not self-sufficient enough to survive the work of prospecting. Howard, though much older and less physically fit, possesses a wisdom that allows him to lead the group, putting Dobbs in his place enough to grate on him to the point of resentment. Meanwhile, Dobbs is a slightly stooped, not entirely handsome man with no particularly strong skills other than his ability to become angry within a second's notice. He is always the first to whip his pistol out in order to intimidate, and it's clearly in order to assert some qualities he naturally does not possess. It becomes hard to read a subtext such as this in the novel, but the way Huston plays the scenarios out on screen with the actors makes it a viable interpretation, or at least I think so.
Bogart pairs up with Huston again for The African Queen, again as a rough-and-tumble sort, but this time in Africa during the eve of WWI. There's not much I have to say about this movie except that it's a lot of fun, even if it's a highly conventional Hollywood romp with two big names hamming it up big time. The inclusion of a strong, female character is interesting though. It is she, Rose (Hepburn), who decides with absolute conviction that she and Charlie (Bogart) are to blow up a German vessel with the small ship they have, a suicide mission if anything. And though Charlie is a rough man's man character, his subservience to her in fear of offending her with his coarseness and his nearly-impotent attempt to refuse her command is a twist on male roles in the world of Huston (at least that I've experienced so far). Though once they fall in love she becomes more of a gushing, supportive wife, which I guess makes things less interesting. In any case, a good adventure movie. I heard that production was held up several times because Huston kept going away to hunt big game, which I certainly hope is true.

In the next post I'll go over the later films I saw, which include Wise Blood, Under the Volcano, and Fat City.

1 comment:

Zinnia Cress said...

i just saw the treasures of sierra madre at the tcm film festival in los angeles last weekend- to see that film on the big screen was great. we also got to sit in on an interview with angelica and danny huston. :) great post.